My oldest child was a baby when Pope Benedict XVI stepped down. He’s in middle school now, and I’m constantly trying to find a balance between shielding him from the news, which is so often overwhelming and terrible, and making him appropriately aware of world events.
“So, it looks like Pope Benedict is dying,” I told him, figuring he’d be hearing about it soon enough. “The pope is dying?” he asked, his interest ever-so-slightly piqued. “Not Pope Francis,” I clarified. “Pope Benedict. The old pope.” He took this in and went back to talking about basketball. A few hours later I would have the same exchange with his younger brother. “Not Francis, Benedict. The pope emeritus.” I tried to give them some idea of how unusual the situation was, to make them aware that “pope emeritus” was not, as they would say, “a thing” until quite recently. I told them how disorienting it was for adult Catholics, and especially those of us working in the “having opinions about the Catholic Church” sector, to learn that Benedict planned to resign. Can he even do that? What are we supposed to call him now? Some Catholic pundits had spent the final years of John Paul II’s pontificate insisting that the Vicar of Christ, however infirm, could not possibly abandon his post. And now here was his successor, a man who had been expected to follow faithfully in his former boss’s footsteps, charting a radically different course. Those who had convinced themselves that no other choice was possible had to reckon with the discovery that, actually, it was. Suddenly, the pope retiring was a thing.
It seems painfully naïve to talk about responsible leadership in a time of empty iconoclasm, when “understanding what a job involves and earnestly trying to do it” is out and “disruption” is in. But Pope Benedict really cared about the job he had to do, and in resigning he demonstrated that the responsible use of power sometimes requires a willingness to give it up. He gave us an example to follow: if you think your continued leadership is likely to do more harm than good, you can and you ought to step aside and let someone else lead.